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Flu season could be a bad one, health officials say

The 2012 flu season got off to a slow start until the number of cases spiked last week, prompting officials at the Centers for Disease control to urge people to get their flu shots now. Currently, the highest level of flu activity has been reported by states in the South. NBC's Robert Bazell reports.

This year’s flu season has kicked in early, with activity up significantly across the nation, particularly in the south and southeast, federal health officials say.

"It looks like it's shaping up to be a bad flu season," said Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The percentage of aching, feverish folks who went to the doctor with influenza-like illness had reached the national baseline of 2.2 percent, the earliest that has happened in the regular flu season in nearly a decade, the 2003-2004 season. Flu season may start as early as October, but typically peaks in January or later.

Five states reported high levels of flu activity -- Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi, Tennessee and Texas. Widespread activity was reported in four states, regional activity was seen in seven states and 19 states reported local flu activity, CDC officials said. That was up from eight states that reported local flu activity the previous week.

Michael Patrick / AP file

Linda Howard, 66, of Knoxville, Tenn., gets a flu shot from nursing student Elizabeth Wallace at free flu shot clinic in October.

By contrast, last year's flu season started late, with an uptick in cases not starting until February. 

Health officials are urging people to get their flu shots now, including babies older than six months, and all adults and children. Every year, about a quarter of the U.S. population gets the flu and an average of about 36,000 people die.

The strains making people sick are influenza A -- both H3N2 and the 2009 H1N1 or pandemic swine flu strain -- and influenza B. So far, the vaccines manufactured for this season appear to be a good match, health officials said. 

But the H3N2 virusmay  typically cause more severe symptoms than the other flu bugs, noted Dr. William Schaffner, chairman of the Department of Preventive Medicine at Vanderbilt University. His staff has already started seeing flu patients in Tennessee. 

"We're all a bit antsy," he said. 

About 120 million doses of flu vaccine are available this year, Frieden said. About 112 million people have received their flu shots so far, officials said. 

The key to avoiding the flu is getting the shot, the experts emphasized. 

"We are particularly encouraging people who haven't gotten vaccinated to do it," said Dr. Melinda Wharton, acting director of the CDC's Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases.

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